More Partridge than Partridge: how Tony Blackburn’s Poptastic! memoir inspired Alan

Bouncing back: Tony Blackburn in 2010 -  David Rose
Bouncing back: Tony Blackburn in 2010 - David Rose

A little quiz. Who said, “When the time comes, all I want engraved on my tombstone are just five words: ‘I gave you time checks’”? Was it real-life Antony Kenneth Blackburn, or the fictional Alan Gordon Partridge?

It was, in fact, Tony Blackburn, the disc jockey with the toothpaste advert-smile, who now fronts his own 1960s-themed TV channel and whose 2007 biography Poptastic! My Life in Radio is often more Partridge than Partridge. Blackburn’s memoir overflows with the sort of eccentric, self-aggrandising chatter that makes Steve Coogan’s presenter such a pitch perfect parody of a celebrity presenter.

Over 30 years after Partridge made his debut on Radio 4, as a hapless sports reporter in the spoof show On the Hour, the presenter returned to BBC One in February 2019 with This Time With Alan Partridge.

The 79-year-old Blackburn, who helped launch Radio 1 in 1967, now presents the Radio 2 show Sounds of the Sixties. He is also back at the BBC after a period in 2016 when he was taken off air following an investigation into evidence he gave to the review into sexual abuse at the Corporation. After being cleared, Blackburn said: “It’s been difficult, it’s been challenging, but a bit like Alan Partridge I’ve been bouncing back,” referring to Bouncing Back, the fanciful self-published autobiography that was derided - and eventually pulped - in the television series I'm Alan Partridge.

Armando Iannucci, who co-created Partridge with Coogan, joked that Blackburn’s return to the national consciousness in 2002, after winning the first series of I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, might inspire future storylines. “Look at the faded celebs like Tony Blackburn getting a second chance in reality TV shows,” said Iannucci. “I imagine Alan’s agents have already been in discussion with the producers of Celebrity Colonic Irrigation."

Steve Coogan in This Time with Alan Partridge -  Andy Seymour
Steve Coogan in This Time with Alan Partridge - Andy Seymour

A decade after Blackburn was crowned King of the Jungle, Coogan and Iannucci, along with Rob and Neil Gibbons, wrote the mock autobiography I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan. Shallowness and egotism are all part of the joke of I, Partridge, but what makes Poptastic! such a delight are the unintentional Partridgisms that litter Blackburn’s memoir. Try these for starters: “pantomime is the aristocracy of light entertainment”; “my wife loves churches, but stained glassed windows give me the shivers”; “when I’m eating out, I will always start with Minestrone Soup – and it’s got to be piping hot”.

There is something fundamentally comical about Blackburn, even when it’s accidental. “I didn’t want to eat anything that had a face,” he wrote of his decision to turn vegetarian. As a teenager, he wanted to be a professional singer and founded a band called ‘Tony Blackburn’s Swinging Bells’. He was forced to drop the name because someone kept defacing the concert posters to ‘Tony Blackburn’s Swinging Balls’.

Blackburn, to be fair, does send himself up sometimes. The 1990s Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield character DJ Dave Nice (half of Smashie and Nicey), was a tribute (of sorts) to Blackburn, who adopted some of the dim-witted DJ’s catchphrases. Nicey was an apt name, too. “My philosophy is to be nice to people,” Blackburn wrote in Poptastic!.

Tony Blackburn in 2002 - PA
Tony Blackburn in 2002 - PA

Partridge and Blackburn are amateur philosophers and both like to air their thoughts about religion. While Partridge is more light-hearted (“God is a gas… but not a small gas like Calor Gas,” is a one of his aphorisms), the former Top of the Pops presenter’s account of why he ended up dismissing religion as “one giant con” is pure, inadvertent Partridge.

“I went camping on the Isle of Wight with a Christian organisation called the Crusaders,” Blackburn recalled. “It was my first time away and I hated it. The only reason I joined was because I had taken a liking to the badge, a shield bearing a St George’s Cross insignia, and I wanted one. I had a discussion with a vicar and he said he would never marry because he was already betrothed to God. Ridiculous, I thought. That conversation completely turned me away from religion – and I swore I would never go camping again.”

He did go camping again, of course, when a large cheque, and the prospect of being on national television, lured him to battle it out Down Under with Uri Geller and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson on the first I’m a Celebrity. “Those two weeks in the jungle brought me closest in my life to a spiritual feeling, even though my mother tried to talk me out of going,” he wrote in his deadpan style.

There was something deodorised about Blackburn that attracted the BBC in the first place to hire a man unashamedly proud to “have mainstream appeal”. Iannucci said that Partridge was specifically designed to be “a kind of social X-ray of male, middle-aged, Middle England”. It is telling that Blackburn proclaimed his happiness at being able to “please Middle England”.

The subject of war fascinates both men. “Which is the worst monger? Fish, iron, rumour or war?”, asks Partridge in the 2013 movie Alpha Papa. Blackburn ruminated with more conceit on this life-or-death topic. “I know I can’t stop people killing each other in Iraq, but I wonder what would happen if I went over there in one of my ridiculous stage costumes? It wouldn’t do any harm. The day when someone declares war and no one bothers to turn up is a long way off,” he added sagely.

Coogan described Partridge as a ‘Little Englander’, with right-wing values, and Blackburn offered Partridge-like reflections on the miners’ strike of 1973.:

During the winter and autumn, the Miners’ Strike was bringing the country to a standstill. Every time I turned up for a panto rehearsal, we’d just get started and the electricity would go out. It was bad enough that the three-day week was crippling the nation, but interfering with my attempts to get Cinderella safely to the ball? I wasn’t having that! One morning, I tried to sort it all out and told the miners that they should all get back to work. Bad move. My advice didn’t go down too well.

The BBC gave the former pirate radio broadcaster a “dressing down” and a two-week suspension (a fate the crass, buffoonish Partridge suffered on Mid Morning Matters, after being abusive to a group of teenagers in the North Norfolk Digital radio studio). Perhaps Blackburn was misguided regarding the microphone as “my biggest friend in the world”.

As you might imagine, the Radio 1 disc jockey who grew up admiring Cliff Richard has lots of opinions about musicians. Blackburn was not a big Elvis Presley fan (“I preferred Perry Como”) and felt out of tune with 1970s crazes, apart from “discothèque music”. Upon meeting Brian May he told him Bohemian Rhapsody was "A very useful record, because it gives you enough time to go to the loo and back while you're on air". And he claimed that his negative opinions about psychedelic music made him “the whipping boy for hairy types”.

Among the random musings in Poptastic! are:

  • “David Bowie’s music was not my kind, I’ll take Alvin Stardust over Ziggy Stardust any time.”

  • “Led Zeppelin. Lead balloon, more like.”

  • “I know Brian May is a lovely guy, but Queen just don’t do it for me.”

  • “I hated punk rock and everything it stood for.”

  • “Wings? They’re only the band The Beatles could’ve been!”.

Actually, that final one is genuine Partridge. But you get how the lines blur?

Blackburn and Partridge share fragile personalities and although they are sometimes self-important, and, in Partridge’s case, display a pitiful lack of self-awareness, it still somehow puts people on edge to see them in trouble. When Blackburn lost his Radio 1 breakfast show after six successful years, he admitted that “it was as if something had died in me”.

Tony Blackburn with Tara Palmer-Tomkinson on the set of I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here - PA
Tony Blackburn with Tara Palmer-Tomkinson on the set of I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here - PA

Both are also capable of temper tantrums, especially if they believe their place in the limelight is under threat. Blackburn built his fan base around wince-making jokes. When Noel Edmonds first appeared as a rival on radio, Blackburn took “an instant dislike” to the man with the tidy beard, and yelled, “there’s only room for one person to tell bad jokes”. This spat neatly anticipated the rivalry between Partridge and would-be funny man ‘Sidekick Simon’ on Mid Morning Matters.

Blackburn’s liaisons with women are undoubtedly more plentiful than those of Partridge and they certainly brought out the DJ’s desire to boast. He referred to the “lucky lady” to whom he lost his virginity and said that, at Radio 1, there was “an endless supply of women ready to throw themselves at you”.

He said his Kensington bachelor pad was “a revolving door of London lovelies” and bragged that sleeping with four girls a week was “like shuffling through a pack of cards”. There is no hint of reflection on a time spent objectifying women. Instead he merely noted that his weekly bedding tally was “a hit rate that my club-owning friend Peter Stringfellow would probably regard as a complete disgrace”.

The audiobook cover of Poptastic!
The audiobook cover of Poptastic!

Amid the embarrassing braggadocio, there is also the pathos, especially in the dismal account of the failure of his marriage to actress Tessa Wyatt, who left him after five years of marriage for her Robin's Nest co-star Richard O’Sullivan. Blackburn, who had also been unfaithful during the union, had a break-down on air and said he had not been helped by crowds at a Radio 1 roadshow “waving their scarves like football hooligans, shouting Robin’s Nest, Robin’s Nest”.

A period of “morbid despair” followed, during which he lived in isolation, in his country mansion, eating cold food from tin cans and quaffing lots of Valium and cheap wine “to blot out reality”. It’s hard to say which character had the worst of it. In I, Partridge, in a chapter entitled ‘My Drink and Drugs Heck’, the presenter says his breakdown and subsequent addiction (to Swiss chocolate) “took me to places I never wanted to go. Mainly Dundee”.

Both men endured other periods of loneliness. Partridge had dark nights of the soul in a caravan in Norfolk; Blackburn in his swanky flat in London. Blackburn found solace in watching television, though. “Sitting down in front of the TV is my favourite past-time. When I lived alone in Kensington, I would sometimes watch for 17 or 18 hours on the trot,” he recalled. “I learned a lot about nature politics, the world. Coronation Street was my favourite programme.”

A maudlin, sentimental streak was a feature of both autobiographies. “We stood at the window, me and my son… I looked up at the starry night," is a recollection from I Partridge, which is reminiscent of Blackburn’s description of his honeymoon night with Wyatt at The Savoy, where he gazed out at the River Thames, “drinking in the starry scene”.

Blackburn, then 49, married for the second time in June 1992, to Debbie, a woman 17 years his junior. It was a move his fictional counterpart would have saluted (“I’m 47, my girlfriend's 33; she's 14 years younger than me: Back of the net!”, he says in one episode of I’m Alan Partridge). There is a poignant line in Poptastic! when Blackburn wondered if he was indeed “a caricature of a caricature”.

Blackburn, who had his own Southern Television chat show for two years in the 1970s called Time for Blackburn, wrote that one of his happiest jobs was hosting the Sex and Soul Showon BBC Radio London in the 1980s, where he would crack jokes about “whipping out my 12-incher”.

Nell McAndrew and Tony Blackburn in a 2003 ad for Marmite - PA
Nell McAndrew and Tony Blackburn in a 2003 ad for Marmite - PA

“I set myself up as a sex therapist,” he said of that radio role. “Someone would ring into the show and say, ‘I’m not getting on well with my girlfriend, we argue the whole time,’ and my advice was usually along the lines of ‘well, why not split up and find yourself another girlfriend?’ You just can’t argue with the plain-speaking, common sense view. It’s so simple that it is almost a thing of beauty.”

Although his memoir is out of print, his “common sense” is still available as an audio book, read by Blackburn himself. His pronunciation of words such as “dee-jay”, “block-head” and “shin-dig” would not sound out of place in Steven Toast’s over-the-top rendition of his spoof actor-y memoir Toast on Toast. Poptastic! provides so many laugh-out-loud moments, including Blackburn’s account of seeing his new-born son for the first time. “Simon had next to no hair and my first thought was. ‘My God, he looks like the comedian Charlie Drake!’”

Blackburn, like Partridge, believes that he was put on earth to cheer people up and he conjured a very specific picture of what would constitute his ideal life. “I fantasise about my dream world – free from cruelty and violence,” the DJ wrote. “It’s an English country garden, a clear blue sky and the sun beaming down as Doris Day serenades me.” It’s not hard to imagine that Tony Blackburn’s dream world would also suit a certain Norfolk presenter, in his blazer and plaid trousers, down to a tee.